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Meditate Your Pain Away

Zen meditation – a centuries-old practice that helps people gain mental, physical and emotional balance – can keep pain at bay

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Universite de Montreal researchers.

According to a Psychosomatic Medicine study, Zen meditators have lower pain sensitivity both in and out of a meditative state compared to non-meditators. Along with Pierre Rainville, a professor and researcher at the Université de Montréal, Joshua A. Grant, a doctoral student in the Department of Physiology co-authored the paper.

The main aim of the study was to examine whether trained meditators perceived pain differently than non-meditators. “While previous studies have shown that teaching chronic pain patients to meditate is beneficial, very few studies have looked at pain processing in healthy, highly trained meditators. This study was a first step in determining how or why meditation might influence pain perception,” says Grant.

To reach the conclusion, the scientists recruited 13 Zen meditators with a minimum of 1,000 hours of practice to undergo a pain test and contrasted their reaction with 13 non-meditators. Subjects included 10 women and 16 men between the ages of 22 to 56.

The administered pain test was simple: A thermal heat source, a computer controlled heating plate, was pressed against the calves of subjects intermittently at varying temperatures. Heat levels began at 43 degrees Celsius and went to a maximum of 53 degrees Celsius depending on each participant’s sensitivity. While quite a few of the meditators tolerated the maximum temperature, all control subjects were well below 53 degrees Celsius.

Grant and Rainville noticed a marked difference in how their two test groups reacted to pain testing – Zen meditators had much lower pain sensitivity (even without meditating) compared to non-meditators. During the meditation-like conditions it appeared meditators further reduced their pain partly through slower breathing: 12 breaths per minute versus an average of 15 breaths for non-meditators.

“Slower breathing certainly coincided with reduced pain and may influence pain by keeping the body in a relaxed state. While previous studies have found that the emotional aspects of pain are influenced by meditation, we found that the sensation itself, as well as the emotional response, is different in meditators,” Grant said.

The ultimate result was that Zen meditators experienced an 18 per cent reduction in pain intensity.

Source:The Times Of India

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Save Your Sanity

A “sick” patient who goes for medical consultation does not always have a physical ailment that can be diagnosed and treated quickly. About 36 per cent of these patients suffers from mental illnesses, and of these 20 per cent has “somatisation” — that is, depression showing up as exhaustion, dizzy spells, intolerance to noise, tingling sensation, pain or insomnia. Their thoughts, emotions and behaviour are affected. They are always “sick”, and this makes it difficult for them to hold down a job or relate to people.
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Serious mental illnesses (psychotic disorders) are present in 0.5 per cent of this population. Such people may suffer from schizophrenia, wherein they hear voices inside their head and which command them to do strange things. They may also be paranoid — that is, convinced that everyone (even close friends and family) is determined to harm them. Depression may cause them to become unproductive, addicted to alcohol or drugs, or have suicidal thoughts. Panic and anxiety can be so extreme that he or she is unable to leave home. Maniacal behaviour may cause reckless spending or sexual promiscuity.

Mental illness is a chronic disease, just like diabetes or arthritis. Unfortunately, it is not viewed as such. The patient and his or her family may conceal the illness because they are ashamed of it. They hope it is a passing phase brought about by “bad fate”, religious or moral transgressions, or is a result of witchcraft. If the patient is a catatonic schizophrenic — that is, remains immobile in a bizarre statue-like position for hours or even days — people around may not always understand the situation. Undiagnosed patients may be denied treatment and stigmatised, or even confined, chained or beaten.

Both men and women are prone to mental illness, but the spectrum of disease slightly differs in the sexes. Men are more prone to schizophrenia and women to depression. In addition, women suffer a specific type of depression called post natal depression (PND). This can set in one to six months after the birth of a child and can last weeks or months. During this time, women feel anxious, guilty and suicidal, as they are unable to cope with the baby. Unfortunately, though it is a self-limited treatable condition, it is often ignored. The patients are at times even accused of being “possessed” and treated by quacks.

Centuries ago, Hippocrates postulated that the brain is an organ with particular functions, just like the liver or heart, and that it is prone to disease and malfunction. Scanning techniques such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) have demonstrated that he was right. Blood flow to certain areas of the brain and its actual physical size differs in those with mental illnesses.

The heart responds to exercise with an increase in its rate. Similarly, the brain responds to life events with the release of chemical neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline, gamma-amino butyric acid and acetylcholine. An imbalance, the excess of any chemical, a change in the ratio or relative deficiency leads to gradations of depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

Mental illnesses tend to run in families and have a genetic basis. Members carry genes that predispose them to neurotransmitter imbalances. The genes manifest themselves if the environmental factors are conducive. Children may be victims of abuse if one or both parents are mentally ill. They may witness alcoholism, other addictions or domestic violence. Discipline may be haphazard and academic performance unstructured and poor. This may predispose them to mental illness in later life.

If an unprovoked person suddenly becomes violent or starts talking gibberish, the diagnosis of mental illness is easy. In the early stages of mental illnesses — when the symptoms may be subtle — or in paranoid schizophrenics (who may be persuasive and appear rational in their delusions), the diagnosis is not so obvious. Conversations and interviews with the patient and relatives and verbal tests eventually lead the psychiatrist to the diagnosis. There are no confirmatory blood or imaging tests. It is a subjective diagnosis that requires expertise and years of training.

Mental illnesses may be difficult to treat, even in the best of hands. Drug combinations and dosages have to be individualised. Medication has to be continued long term. The neurochemicals in the brain take time to change, and hence the response is gradual and not dramatic. Relapses can occur, especially if dosages are missed. Psychotherapy (talking to the patient) and social rehabilitation have to take place simultaneously.

The duration of therapy and pace of improvement is often discouraging. It may make the relatives fall prey to charlatans who promise a “miracle cure”. However, their methods are unscientific and may cause harm. Religious organisations with untrained personnel are not a substitute for psychiatrists or psychotherapists. And last but not the least, marriage does not cure mental illness.

Mental illness can be prevented by —

• Early identification of problem behaviour

• Adequate social support and social networking

• Learning mechanisms for coping with stress

• Effective community care

• Physical fitness plays a positive role. A family that exercises for 40 minutes a day will be physically and mentally healthy.

Source: The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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‘Virtual Treadmill’ to Walk Faster

Scientists have developed what they claim is a “virtual reality” treadmill which can trick people into believing that they are moving more slowly than they actually are.

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According to them, the technology could be of great help to stroke sufferers across the world by encouraging them to move faster on the treadmill, which in turn will speed up their recovery.

“The virtual system encourages patients to walk more quickly and for longer, almost without them realising it. It is not just that they are distracted from the pain; by moving faster than they realise, their body actually feels it less. We’re effectively fooling the brain and cheating the body.

“It’s a lot more fun than traditional rehab and it can actually facilitate a much faster recovery. Our test subjects are usually surprised when I tell them they’ve improved by up to 20%,” lead scientist Wendy Powell was quoted by the Independent as saying.

In fact, moving images on a giant screen respond to patients’ efforts on an adapted treadmill. And using a variety of different settings, including urban and rural landscapes, the device creates a virtual world for the patient to “walk” through on the treadmill.

This immersion also acts as a distraction, and early research has already shown patients using it have a decreased perception of pain, according to the researchers at Portsmouth University.

It may be mentioned that clinical trials on patients are currently taking place in collaboration with Canada-based McGill University and early results are also said to be very encouraging. Sixty-one-year-old stroke sufferer Andy Long, who has been using the technology as part of his rehab, hails it as “magic”.

“The vast majority of stroke survivors cannot use a normal treadmill because they are not in control.

Many can only hold on with one hand, making it almost impossible. Walking is the best possible exercise for their bodies, and this system means it could all become available to them,” he said.

Sources:
The Times Of India

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Hazards: Gamblers Report More Health Problems

People who gamble are more likely to suffer from a variety of health problems, including heart and liver disease, a new study finds.

The researchers looked at three kinds of gamblers, whom they described as pathological, problem or at-risk, and found that all of them tended to report more medical concerns than the general population.

The pathological gamblers had the highest number of reported problems. But even occasional gamblers raised some red flags.

Taken together,  the researchers write in Psychosomatic Medicine, “these findings indicate that even a moderate amount of gambling (five or more times a year) is associated with some decreased health functioning.  Benjamin J. Morasco, now with the Portland VA Medical Center in Oregon, led the study when he was at the University of Connecticut in Farmington.

The researchers drew on information gathered in a national health survey of more than 43,000 people. The people surveyed were asked a broad range of questions about their health and behaviors, including how often they gambled.

Gamblers were considered pathological if they were preoccupied with gambling and kept doing it even though it was causing difficulties at home or work. Problem gamblers were those whose troubles were not as severe. People who gambled five or more times a year were described as at-risk.

There were several explanations for why gamblers might suffer more health problems, the researchers said. People who gamble a lot are more likely to smoke and drink heavily. Beyond that, they may have higher stress levels.

By some estimates, the researchers said, the at-risk group makes up about a fourth of the population, so the findings suggest that there may be public health implications.

Source: The New York Times